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The No. 1 thing Derek Dooley can do for the Mizzou offense: Smooth out the volatility

Mizzou’s full-season numbers were incredible in 2017. But when the Tigers failed, they failed.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

On a cursory level, Missouri’s offense was awesome in 2017. Drew Lock set the single-season SEC touchdown passes record, the Tigers had a 1,000-yard rusher and a 1,000-yard receiver, and Mizzou ranked in the Off. S&P+ top 15 again (13th) for just the second time since Chase Daniel graduated.

Mizzou’s offensive success, just two years removed from one of the team’s worst ever offensive performances, was impressive enough that offensive coordinator Josh Heupel parlayed it into the UCF head coaching job. Quarterback Drew Lock almost went pro because of last season’s numbers.

It’s a little too simple to leave it at that, though. For all of Mizzou’s impressive offensive numbers, the Tigers still scored three points on Purdue, 13 on South Carolina, 14 on Auburn, and 16 on Texas. They struggled for most of the first half against Kentucky, which cost them a win, and they were completely shut down for most of the second half against Georgia, which turned a back-and-forth game into a 25-point loss.

There are some root causes for some of those struggles. First of all, three of the four bad games happened early, and the fourth (Texas) happened a) with a dramatic field position disadvantage and b) without Heupel. Still, the Texas Bowl loss was a reminder that Mizzou’s volatility hadn’t been entirely smoothed out. An offense capable of ridiculous highs was also capable of exploding on the launch pad.

This manifested itself definitively in scoring situations. In seven wins, Mizzou averaged a frankly incredible 5.7 points per scoring opportunity (first downs inside the opponent’s 40). Over a full season, that average would have ranked first in the country. In the six losses, though? Just 3.7 points per opportunity. That would have ranked 123rd out of 130.

The volatility didn’t wait until the red zone to present itself, though.

Late in the season, I started playing with drive data in a new way (for me). As part of my SB Nation previews, I would look at how an offense or defense functioned in its successful and unsuccessful moments to get a feel for what the true keys to a game might be. This offseason, I’ve been playing with this type of data as well, just to see what it tells me.

By definition, all offenses are going to be better in their successful drives than their unsuccessful drives. That goes without saying. But as it turns out, the differences between your good moments and bad moments can indeed tell you something.

For starters, it tells us that — grab your clutching pearls — Mizzou’s offense was quite volatile last year! Crazy, right?

Mizzou success rate (successes vs. non-successes)

category successful MU drives unsuccessful drives difference (Mizzou) difference (national) (Mizzou Diff - National)
category successful MU drives unsuccessful drives difference (Mizzou) difference (national) (Mizzou Diff - National)
Success Rate 61.5% 24.7% 36.8% 27.6% 9.2%
Rushing Success Rate 61.2% 29.6% 31.6% 23.1% 8.5%
Passing Success Rate 61.8% 19.7% 42.0% 32.5% 9.6%
Std. Downs Success Rate 62.4% 31.4% 31.0% 22.2% 8.8%
Std. Downs Rushing Success Rate 62.9% 33.7% 29.2% 19.9% 9.3%
Std. Downs Passing Success Rate 61.7% 28.2% 33.6% 25.6% 8.0%
Pass. Downs Success Rate 58.2% 14.0% 44.2% 35.0% 9.2%
Pass. Downs Rushing Success Rate 50.0% 19.5% 30.5% 27.5% 3.0%
Pass. Downs Passing Success Rate 61.8% 10.6% 51.2% 39.1% 12.1%
Red Zone Success Rate 54.3% 19.0% 35.4% 30.5% 4.9%
Red Zone Rushing Success Rate 53.0% 25.8% 27.2% 26.2% 1.0%
Red Zone Passing Success Rate 55.9% 11.1% 44.8% 34.6% 10.2%
Non-Red Zone Success Rate 65.1% 28.4% 36.7% 32.0% 4.7%
Non-Red Zone Rushing Success Rate 61.2% 31.1% 30.1% 24.9% 5.2%
Non-Red Zone Passing Success Rate 68.6% 25.3% 43.3% 39.4% 3.9%

So here’s what this table tells us:

  • Mizzou’s success rate in its scoring drives.
  • Mizzou’s success rate in its non-scoring drives.
  • The difference between the two.
  • The national difference between scoring and non-scoring drives.
  • The difference between Mizzou’s difference and the national average.

Across the board, the difference between Mizzou’s successes and non-successes was quite a bit more stark than the national averages. Mizzou’s success rate in scoring drives was 62 percent; in non-scoring drives, it was 25 percent. That’s a difference of 37 percentage points compared to the national baseline of 28. That’s about the size of most of the differences there. But two specific situations stand out:

  • Mizzou’s passing downs passing success rate was 62 percent in scoring drives and 10 percent in non-scoring drives. That’s a difference of 52 percentage points, nearly 12 points higher than the national average.
  • Mizzou’s passing success rate in the red zone (which I define as inside the 40 — for symmetry purposes) was 56 percent in scoring drives and 11 percent in non-scoring drives. That’s a 45-percentage point difference when the national average was 35.

Now, part of this comes from the simple fact that Missouri had a good offense. There’s a little bit of a correlation between teams’ Off. S&P+ ranking and a larger-than-normal difference in categories like passing downs success rate and passing success rate. Still, Mizzou’s differences were still larger than those of the teams above them on the Off. S&P+ list.

It’s the same story with explosiveness.

Mizzou explosiveness (successes vs. non-successes)

category successful MU drives unsuccessful drives difference (Mizzou) difference (national) (Mizzou Diff - National)
category successful MU drives unsuccessful drives difference (Mizzou) difference (national) (Mizzou Diff - National)
IsoPPP 1.60 0.88 0.72 0.49 0.22
Rushing IsoPPP 0.96 0.85 0.11 0.35 -0.24
Passing IsoPPP 2.23 0.93 1.30 0.65 0.65
Std. Downs IsoPPP 1.44 0.89 0.56 0.45 0.11
Std. Downs Rushing IsoPPP 0.87 0.87 0.00 0.32 -0.32
Std. Downs Passing IsoPPP 2.17 0.91 1.26 0.64 0.62
Pass. Downs IsoPPP 2.19 0.86 1.33 0.65 0.68
Pass. Downs Rushing IsoPPP 1.71 0.75 0.96 0.61 0.35
Pass. Downs Passing IsoPPP 2.36 0.98 1.38 0.66 0.72
Red Zone IsoPPP 1.22 1.42 -0.20 0.25 -0.44
Red Zone Rushing IsoPPP 0.86 1.54 -0.68 0.13 -0.81
Red Zone Passing IsoPPP 1.62 1.10 0.52 0.37 0.15
Non-Red Zone IsoPPP 1.81 0.83 0.98 0.68 0.30
Non-Red Zone Rushing IsoPPP 1.05 0.73 0.32 0.54 -0.22
Non-Red Zone Passing IsoPPP 2.43 0.98 1.46 0.77 0.69

IsoPPP stands for Isolated points per play. It’s a look at the magnitude of a team’s successful plays. And based on the all-or-nothing nature of Mizzou’s passing game, you’d have thought the Tigers were running the option.

Difference in Passing IsoPPP between scoring and non-scoring drives:

  1. Air Force (1.40)
  2. New Mexico (1.36)
  3. Mizzou (1.30)
  4. Navy (1.19)
  5. Central Michigan (1.08)

Of the 12 teams above Mizzou in Off. S&P+, nobody had a difference higher than 0.94. UCF’s difference: 0.46. Penn State’s: 0.77. Their big-play threat was far steadier, while Mizzou was absurdly, and perhaps unsustainably, all-or-nothing. The big plays were enormous and unreliable.

One other way to draw context from this is by comparing Mizzou’s primary differences to those of previous Mizzou offenses.

The 2017 Mizzou offense had the largest differences in every category but Rushing IsoPPP. The three recent Mizzou offenses that were better than 2017’s — 2007, 2008, and 2013 — were steadier and far more efficient in their less successful moments. That meant moving the chains a couple of times before punting instead of going three-and-out, and it meant far more consistency in terms of finishing drives.

Mizzou was hard to describe last year. Heupel’s offense was clearly successful and strong, but its inconsistency and volatility were incredible. In 2018, I guess we’ll learn how much of that was the system and how much was on Drew Lock. If it’s the former, then new offensive coordinator Derek Dooley has a clear way to push Mizzou’s offense further forward. If it’s the latter, then making tweaks to a potentially more complicated, more pro-style attack could simply result in fewer big plays, more turnovers, and a lower ceiling.